By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Couples fight about all kinds of issues, such as money, sex, and child-raising methods. However, no matter the topic, there seem to be two main underlying concerns. They either perceive their partner as a threat in some way or they perceive their partner as neglecting them.
Researchers Sanford and Wolfe (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2013) recently found that these underlying concerns were associated with what people want from their partner during conflict. People who feel threatened by their partner just want to feel safe again. They want their partner to stop harassing them; or yelling at them; or threatening them in some way. Those who feel neglected by their partner want more interaction. They want their partner to show them more attention or affection. Or, they want them to talk and communicate more.
You can make practical use of this research by applying it to your relationship. Below are some strategies for how to do this.
My first set of strategies is for when your partner feels emotionally threatened. They are likely to become easily upset, go on the attack to prove you wrong about something, and fail to really listen to what you are saying. There are many ways to help alleviate that tension. For instance, you might:
Paraphrase what your partner is saying: This will help your partner feel understood and be less defensive. However, it is not enough to just intellectually summarize your partner. You must really “get” what your partner is saying so that you can empathize with his or her perspective.
Disclose your vulnerable experiences: By making yourself vulnerable, you will be connecting more with softer emotions (e.g. hurt, sadness), which will make your partner feel less threatened. You must time this right so that they respond with their own soft emotions, rather than by attacking. For instance, you might want to share that you feel hurt about something when you see your partner becoming a little tense, but not while they are blasting you with their anger.
Talk with “I” statements: Rather than accusing or attacking your partner, it is more helpful to share your experiences. For instance, instead of saying, “You are so over-sensitive,” you might want to say, “It makes me uncomfortable when you cry because I don’t like to see you in pain and I don’t know how to make it go away.”
My second set of strategies is for when your partner is feeling neglected. They are likely to be upset when you spend time alone or with other friends, easily become jealous, or become unreasonably upset when you don’t want to do some particular activity with them. In response, you will want to be sensitive to this issue and encourage your partner to express this to you. For instance, you might:
Disclose your vulnerable experience: Again, by sharing your sadness or hurt about how they are treating you, your partner will likely feel compassionately toward you. With a little encouragement, they will share they vulnerable feelings about feeling neglected. This way the two of you can work together to address the problem more directly and effectively.
Ask your partner specifically what they’d like you to do: Because you may not know what your partner wants, a little guidance can go a long way. So, ask for some examples of things they’d like you to do. You might ask what you have previously done that made them feel cared about, as well as things they would like to see you do. Then, of course, follow through with what they’re asking for.
Whether your partner is struggling with perceived threats or perceived neglect, there are actions you can take to resolve the related conflicts. With a bit of thought and a willingness to respond in a new way, you can minimize your conflicts and create a much happier relationship.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.